Little /majt/, big /majt/

Yesterday Wilson Gray reported on ADS-L that he’d come across “went a might too far” on another mailing list, in a context where he would have expected the degree modifier a mite ‘a bit, a tad, a little’. Possibly just a spelling confusion (with the more frequent item might standing in for the less frequent mite) —  might – mite does appear on many lists of homophones and spelling confusions — but something more complex might be going on, at least for some of the occurrences.

A few examples of “a might too far” (from a respectable number on the net):

Silver Creek is only 12-15 minutes from Disney, the other main parks being a little further away. This may seem a might too far for some but just think you can come home at the end of the day to peace and quiet. (link)

Whoops! I may have gone just a might too far with that last one. Hubby would not approve. LOL (link)

not a pro by any means, but I think the bird [a cedar waxwing] was a might too far away for the lens, and it focused on the branch. (link)

And then some discussion of a might + Adj on Pam Nelson’s The Grammar Guide (at copydesk.org), in a 6/16/07 posting by Daniel Hunt:

A mighty ‘mite’

As Melanie Sill, our executive editor, wrote on the Editors’ Blog on Thursday, we had a bit of a discussion about a phrase in this lead on restaurant writer Greg Cox’s Epicurean column:

Howdy, pardners. I’ve got some news about a new barbecue restaurant, and seeing as how Carolina folk are a might touchy about the subject, I’ll try to break it to you gently.

Some thought the phrase should have been “a mite touchy.” Others thought “might” was right. The difference hinged on whether we read the phrase as “somewhat touchy” or “very touchy.” “Mite” is used colloquially to mean “a little” or “somewhat.” Regular dictionaries didn’t help us with the other interpretation using “might,” although some extrapolated that it could be a version of “mighty,” as it “We are mighty touchy about our barbecue.” A colleague, Chuck Small, checked an unabridged dictionary. He found “might” listed a colloquialism for “considerable amount.” Still, the mite-might debate went on.

… It was time to go to the source. I sent e-mail to Greg Cox to ask him whether he meant “a little touchy” or “very touchy.” Greg replied that he meant to use “a mite touchy,” meaning “a little touchy.”

So much for this one example, which has “little /majt/”, spelled mite. OED3 June 2002 has the following subentry for mite (originally referring to a small coin of low value):

A very small amount.

a. A jot, a whit. In later use colloq. (used adverbially): somewhat, slightly, a little bit. [from c1400 on; some 20th-century cites:]

1939   L. M. Montgomery Anne of Ingleside i. 9   You needn’t be a mite afraid to sleep in that bed. I aired the sheets to-day.

1972   J. Porter Meddler & her Murder viii. 107   ‘There was no need to go to all that expense, dear,’ said Miss Jones, a mite huffily.

1993   T. Hawkins Pepper xii. 248   All evening he’s seemed a mite awkward.

b. A minute fragment or portion; a tiny amount. Also fig. in negative contexts. [from 1605 on; some 20th-century cites:]

a1911   D. G. Phillips Susan Lenox (1917) I. xxii. 419   Since it..wouldn’t do Lorna the least mite of harm, why not let him think he was right?

1931   M. Allingham Look to Lady xiii. 136   There was this mite of trouble between your aunt and Mrs. Cairey.

1991  Fly Rod & Reel July–Oct. 73/1   The forward stroke is a mite of a stroke, hardly more than a squeeze of the rod handle.

But what about the “big /majt/”, spelled might, that Hunt refers to? OED3 March 2002 has this subentry (in which this might is etymologically related to might ‘power, strength’):

regional (chiefly U.S.). With indefinite article and of: a considerable quantity or amount, plenty. [full list of cites:]

1834   C. A. Davies Lett. Jack Downing xx. 129   The express got back, and brought..a new pair of specs—jest like the old ones (afore they was broken)—there wan’t a might of difference.

1834   W. A. Caruthers Kentuckian in N.Y. I. 28   I’m ‘bliged to do a might of business in Baltimore afore I can go on.

1878   J. H. Beadle Western Wilds ii. 29   It took a might of time.

1892   Harper’s Mag. Feb. 403/2   ‘What’s said of blue-eyed men?’..‘A might o’ things.’

1903   Eng. Dial. Dict. IV. 107/2   I’ve a great might of wate [i.e. wheat] this year.

1939   W. Westrup in Outspan (Bloemfontein) 18 Aug. 87/1   ‘D’you hear a might of shooting a while ago?’ McBein asked, when the reminiscences had run their course.

1955   J. Masters Coromandel! i. 20   A sleeveless leather jerkin that..hid a might of queer things.

1959   H. Carruth Crow & Heart 64   Sometimes she’d just lean back and yawn Like an old mare and go to sleep. She said it took a might of resting—and eating—To keep the life in such a heap.

1979   J. T. Edson Gentle Giant 14,   I can habla a might of Mex’.

You’ll see that little mite and big might have somewhat different syntax, though they share occurrence with a determiner — usually the indefinite article a in the case of mite, invariably this article in the case of might — and both can modify a N (marked with the P of). But big might only modifies Ns (it functions only as a determiner), while little mite also modifies Adjs or Advs (it can also function as a degree adverbial). The result is that /majt/ in a /majt/ too far has to be little /majt/, which is spelled mite. So it’s unlikely that confusion between the two kinds of /majt/ is at the root of things like a might too far (even for the minority of speakers who have big /majt/ at all); it would seem that the confusion is simply over spelling.

But there’s more. There’s also mighty as a (colloquial) degree modifier, as in mighty big ‘very big’. In the Eggcorn Forum (11/24/08), David Tuggy noted that this mighty is sometimes shortened to might, in things like

i must say it looks might good

(Tuggy found 245 ghits for “looks might good”, and of course there were other looks might Adj hits). Then this might could show up in the context a might Adj N:

I noticed that it took a might long time to load my SCSI drivers

thus providing a source for the reanalysis of

a [ [ might Adj ] N ]

as

[ [ a might ] Adj ] N

This is all very suppositious, and it’s not inconsistent with most occurrences of might for mite being simple spelling confusions.

Finally, there’s the semantics. At first glance, little mite and big might(y) would seem to be opposites (‘a little’ vs. ‘a lot’), but matters aren’t so clear-cut: modifiers at the low end of a scale (which denote some degree, but not a high degree, of a quality) can be used litotically, to convey a higher degree of the quality, as when “They were a little annoyed” is used to suggest that they were pretty annoyed. In such settings, the spelling might might be used to convey this higher degree.

(Because of the complexity of this case, there’s no ecdb entry for might ‘mite’, though it’s come up in the Eggcorn Forum at least twice, in 2008 and 2010.)

One Response to “Little /majt/, big /majt/”

  1. Geoffrey Nathan Says:

    Nice that you used a different kind of extended intensifier (‘pretty’) to illustrate the litotes.

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